Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, October 14, 2011

Is transparency a virtue?

Transparency is usually held up as a virtue of good government. In practice, it's not so easy or so universally good for good government.

The parting of the red tape
Whether dewy-eyed or hard-edged, examples abound of the benefits of open government—the idea that citizens should be able see what the state is up to. Estonians track which bureaucrats have looked at their file. Indians scrutinise officials’ salaries painted on village walls. Russians help redraft laws. Norwegians examine how much tax the oil industry pays. Many see openness as a cure for corruption and incompetence in public administration. The problem is how to turn the fan base into an effective lobby.

A new global club may help. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), launched last month at the UN, sets basic standards of openness, such as publishing a draft state budget. Any country that meets them can join…

Many international anti-corruption and transparency bodies are already at work. In the new outfit the main judge of performance will not be other governments (though there is some of that) but citizen groups at home…

Some have dismissed the new venture. Anti-American countries note that one of the masterminds is Samantha Power, a self-described “humanitarian hawk” who advises Barack Obama. Other doubters think it may be a handy way of diverting attention from shortfalls in the American administration’s own ambitious open-government plans…

One pitfall is that measuring the impacts of open governance as clearly as Mr Svensson believes he did in Uganda is hard. A second pitfall is that transparency doesn’t always lead to accountability. In theory, knowing the size of the road budget should make people either demand that more be spent or ask why the roads are still a mess. In practice, citizens may lack a means to turn their discontent into real political pressure. Transparency projects are the “low-hanging fruit” of open governance, and hence tempting for governments to focus on, says Tiago Peixoto, research director of the e-Democracy Centre at the University of Zurich. Giving people a real say, while harder to arrange, yields bigger benefits…

A third worry is that the OGP may shine more attention on the executive branches of national governments than on the local level, or on the judiciary or legislature. Open governance is still a newish idea even in advanced economies. Progress may be patchy, but at least the OGP’s non-governmental members will be able to make plenty of noise about it.

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